Isla Mujeres – more beach time

We leave Cancun in beautiful sunshine but very soon the weather changes and before we know it the heavens have opened and it’s pouring. We arrive on Mujeres wet and a little miserable but it’s only a couple of hours before things have dried out and the sun is shining again.

So after Tulum it was off to Isla Mujeres for a few more days on the beach. We’ve had the last of our long journeys, from now on it’s just a couple of hours between the various beaches in the Yucatan. We get off the bus in Cancun, after passing mile after mile of massive beach resorts. And when I say massive I mean absolutely humungous – these things are the size of small towns. Yuk. From the bus station it’s a short hop in a taxi to the ferry port and then a quick 25 minute ride out to the island. Ferries go every half an hour from 5am to late at night so there’s no need to book tickets in advance, just rock up and away you go.

We leave Cancun in beautiful sunshine but very soon the weather changes and before we know it the heavens have opened and it’s pouring. We arrive on Mujeres wet and a little miserable but it’s only a couple of hours before things have dried out and the sun is shining again.

Isla Mujeres - town

The Stefs are staying at Poc Na, one of the few proper hostels on the island, whilst we’re in a small hotel in the centre of town. Before long, we bump into them in the street (the place really is that tiny) and agree to meet that evening for drinks. We hook up later at the Rock Bar, which starts off a great night with good indie music but slowly goes downhill when a couple of guys (one of them the owner of the bar) decide to show off their guitar playing and singing skills. I use the word skills loosely, it was pretty cringeworthy to watch and the only person that seemed to be enjoying it was the younger guy’s girlfriend. You know those people on X Factor who think they’re really good but are actually pretty appalling? Well enough said.

Isla Mujeres - town

Still, it was great to catch up again with the Stefs and we got introduced to a couple of lovely girls they’d met since being on the island. After some more beers and tacos for dinner, it was off to bed with plans for the beach the next day.

Isla Mujeres - the beach

Sure enough, the weather was much better in the morning and we headed down to Playa Norte to soak up some rays. It’s a beautiful beach here, the same white powder sand as in Tulum but with less sea grass and possibly even warmer water. After maybe half an hour lying on the sand we couldn’t bear the heat any longer as it was impossibly hot so treated ourselves to some sun loungers and umbrellas. Later our pasty skins managed to endure a little more tanning whilst sipping some Flor de Cana we’d bought. Mmmm.

Later, despite the previous evening, it was back to the Rock Bar, along with some more recruits from Poc Na. It was our last night with the Stefs so we were a little sad but all good things must come to an end.

Isla Mujeres - the beach

Apart from that, it was a fairly uneventful few days mainly consisting of lazing on the beach. We were lucky with the weather and although we had a few clouds we didn’t get any more rain. We’re definitely winding down now before we head home so there’s no more big sights to see or tours to go on, just a bit of relaxation before heading back to the English winter.

Merida – party town!

Merida is famous for its weekly celebrations held every weekend, where they close off the streets to traffic and have a bit of a knees up.

We arrived in Merida at 7am after our night bus from Palenque. We were staying at the Yucatan Vista Inn, a small, seven bedroom guesthouse with spacious rooms and a pool in the garden. We hadn’t told them that we would be that early and were greeted at the door by a very grumpy English man. After he’d moaned a bit about check in time not being until 12pm and me asking him sarcastically whether he’d prefer us to wait on the street, he mellowed a little and allowed us to relax in the lounge. As it happened, the guest staying in our room was up and out by 8.30 and an hour later our room was ready. Shattered, we headed straight to bed to catch up on a few hours’ sleep.

Swimming pool at our hotel

That afternoon we headed into town to explore the central area. Merida is famous for its weekly celebrations held every weekend, where they close off the streets to traffic and have a bit of a knees up. We had dinner at a typically Mexican place where the food was cheap and the service fast. Plus they were playing a Shakira concert on the television so Rich was pleased although a little quiet throughout the meal.

Happy Richard

The next day and the Stefs arrived from Playa del Carmen. They had promised back in Antigua that they would meet us for Rich’s birthday and now here they were! They managed to get a room in the same hotel and that evening we took them back to the Mexican restaurant before heading onto to a nearby bar for a few drinks and some light entertainment from a guy on a Casio keyboard. Unfortunately, everyone was feeling a bit tired so we called it a night around 11pm with plans for birthday celebrations the following day.

The cathedral at night

Sunday was Rich’s birthday and after a long lie-in and some TV, we headed into the main square to check out the festivities. One side of the square was now covered in food stalls, selling all the local treats such as tamales, churros and many other delicacies that we hadn’t seen before. Meanwhile, on the other side, a comedienne was doing a routine and judging from the size of the crowd she was pretty well known. In the middle of the square were the usual stalls selling souvenirs, hammocks and traditional cotton dresses. We grabbed a table at one of the food stands and had a great lunch for pennies.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed another square where a band was playing and lots of people were dancing salsa. Most of them were older couples and it was very cute watching them getting into the swing of things, mostly in time to the music!

Back at the hotel and we were greeted by the Stefs with a huge birthday cake for Rich and a six pack of beers – thanks guys!!!

Birthday cake and beers

Later that evening we headed out to an Irish pub for a birthday meal of fish and chips. Well I don’t know what Irish pubs these guys have been to but it was the poshest Irish bar I’ve ever seen! The food was absolutely delicious though and the fish and the burgers came close to the best we’ve ever eaten. Still not quite as good as Tranquilo on Little Corn but amazing nonetheless.

Monday morning and we were off to be tourists. We’d booked ourselves on a tour to some nearby cenotes, underground pools in caves which you can swim in. There are tons of them around the Yucatan and today we were going to visit three of them.

It was an hour and a half ride before we reached our destination. Then it was out of the van and a quick change into our swimming gear before hopping onto our transport for the day – what can only be described as a train pulled by a horse. It was a bit of a bumpy ride but a nice change from sitting on a bus at least! Unfortunately, there was only one track so whenever we met someone coming the other way, one or other of us had to get off the train, manually lift the truck off the rails, let the other pass and then remount the truck back on the rails before continuing. Hmmm. Good design.

Our first cenote was a semi-open one, which you reached by climbing down a flight of stairs. Down below, there was a wooden platform and before us a pool of the clearest water which shimmered a deep blue colour in the cave. From the ceiling hung stalagmites as well as tree roots from the ground above. The water itself was not cold as expected but more like a swimming pool, it was absolutely beautiful. We spent twenty minutes exploring the cave before jumping out and back up to the surface to dry off and head on to our next cenote.

The cenotes

The second one was completely enclosed and you had to climb down a vertical ladder to reach it. Some of the older folk in our group stayed up top, it was a pretty steep climb down. Another stunning pool, this time a little colder due to the lack of sunlight but still not unpleasantly so. After this we were off to a final, semi-open cenote before the horses took us back to our start point. After a bite to eat it was back in the bus for our return to Merida. A very touristy but very enjoyable day and pretty cheap (about £20 each) to boot. Sometimes it’s just easier and cheaper to jump on a tour than trying to DIY it.

The cenotes
The cenotes

Unfortunately, girl Stef was ill so we opted for a dinner of takeaway Subway before packing our bags, ready for a bus to Tulum in the morning. The Stefs were off to Isla Mujeres but we hoped to meet up with them again in a few days’ time.

Copan Ruinas – first taste of the Mayans

After a long 14 hours on a bus from Managua, we finally arrived in San Pedro Sula, one of the main transport hubs in Honduras. There’s nothing here to really interest travellers and in truth it’s a pretty dangerous city, but since there were no onward buses past mid-afternoon (again, it’s too dangerous to travel at night here) we were forced to spend the night. First thing the next morning and we were off to the bus station to continue our journey to the much more pleasant Copan Ruinas and our first taste of the Mayans.

Copan Ruinas town centre

The town itself is a cute little affair, but very much geared towards tourists, with hostels, tour agencies and foreign restaurants on every street corner. We were staying at ViaVia, a lovely bar-restaurant-tour agency-hostel, with only five rooms at a great rate, having already eaten and drunk (a lot) at their Leon branch. Only a couple of blocks from the main square, it was ideally located.

Food stalls at night

That evening, we decided to sample some of the local street food. It’s been a while since we’ve gone local and the jumble of stalls were selling a whole host of Honduran delights. We plumped for the tortilla/meat combo, piled high with salads and drenched in spicy sauce. Yum. Later, we stopped off in a nearby restaurant for a quick drink and soon realised it was where Hondurans came for a novelty night out – as well as the bellow-pumped fire which all the dishes were cooked on, the waitresses carried the orders to the tables on their heads, even to the upstairs dining room – quite a feat!!

Dinner

The next day and we were up early to visit the ruins. It’s a short tuk-tuk trip out of town (Richard was reminiscing of his trip across India in a tuk-tuk) and you can either hire a guide (a bit steep at $25) or wander the ruins yourself. Armed with the Lonely Planet for assistance, we set off.

The ruins

At the entrance to the site, there are dozens of beautiful red macaws which are fed by the park rangers but free to fly into the trees. We also spotted a couple of Mrs Guatin-esque animals, exactly the same as our Merazonia friend, only twice the size!

A macaw at the ruins

The ruins themselves are impressive and despite having been spoilt by Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu we were still in awe. The architecture here is very different and our first taste of the Mayan culture, although we’ll be seeing far more of this once we hit Guatemala and Mexico.

The Ball Court

The site is well preserved and neatly kept, and the potted history provided by our guide book certainly made up for the lack of guide, giving us an insight into the history of the place and the civilisation that lived there.

Stela at the ruins

We took our time, and spent the best part of the morning there. Just be sure to take suncream and water – it can get very hot. We didn’t fork out the extra $15 for the tunnels – from what we have heard it’s not really worth it and we saw more than enough on the surface to satisfy ourselves.

The Hieroglyphic Stairway
More ruins

Back in town that evening, we decided to treat ourselves to some wine and cheese. We found a great little place which served a five cheese platter and some excellent bottles of wine and we gorged ourselves for little more than $20. A little bit different from our previous night of street food but it had been a while! Then it was off to bed before an early start – we had a 6am bus to catch to Antigua for New Year celebrations with the Stefs…

Lots and lots of New Year fireworks

Bocas del Toro – settling into the beach life

Bocas del Toro is a small archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama. After a 12 hour journey on the world’s coldest bus and a quick hop on a boat, we arrived on the main island, Isla Colon. Along for the ride were the Swiss couple and the Italian girl from our San Blas group, as well as some guys that we met in the immigration queue back in Capurgana. Central America’s a hell of a lot smaller than South America and there’s pretty much only two routes to travel – up or down – so we knew we’d be bumping into people a lot more often around here.

We checked into our hostel, Heike, and hit the sack. It had been a sleepless night and we were in much need of some rest. Besides, Bocas is one of those places where the pace of life is SLOW and it’s kind of expected that you’ll spend your days lazing in hammocks or on the beach. We were just trying to fit in with the locals! That evening was another quiet affair, with some lychee martinis and Californian rolls at a cute little cocktail and sushi bar.

Hostel Heike - Bocas del Toro

The following day and we were feeling a little more sprightly so we decided to hit the beach with our new friends. There are several beaches on the main island, but the better ones are on the surrounding smaller islands. We’d heard good things about Red Frog beach on Isla Bastimentos so we jumped in a water taxi for the 20 minute ride over. It’s a privately owned beach so you have to pay to go there but it’s only $3 and it’s well worth it.

Ok, it’s not the powder white sands of Thailand or La Miel but it’s still a very nice beach with clean sand, good waves and a volleyball net for those who are feeling more active. Personally, I’m of the opinion that the only physical activity that should be undertaken on the beach is turning from your front to your back or vice versa but the others certainly had fun with the volleyball until it got stuck up a tree! If you want something a little more desert island-ish then head out to Cayos Zapatilla, where they filmed Survivor.

Red Frog beach - Bocas del Toro

There was a big group of us down there, mostly from our hostel but a few others too, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon sunning ourselves until our boat came to pick us up at 4.30pm. Then it was back to the hostel to shower and change before a quick bite to eat and drinks at the Sunken Ship bar, so called because of the shipwreck sitting beneath the decking which you can swim down to if you’re that way inclined. It was  ‘Ladies’ Night’ so it was free drinks all round for the girls, yay!  After a bit of a boogie on the dancefloor, Rich and I left at a rather respectable midnight, whilst some of the others jumped in a water taxi to Aqua Bar for a few more hours of partying. The funniest story I heard the next morning was of one guy thinking the dock went further than it did and walking straight into the water!

Sunken Ship Bar

Day three and things were relatively quiet as a lot of people seemed to be nursing hangovers from the night before. Rich and I decided to check out one of the beaches on the main island and hopped on the local bus to take us there. The journey is supposed to take around an hour, but ended up taking considerably longer since the driver had to keep stopping every few minutes to let someone on or off. A number of times it would stop to pick someone up, close its doors, travel no more than 10 metres, then stop to pick somebody else up. Why the people at the side of the road couldn’t stand together is beyond me but it became rather tiresome as the journey dragged on and on.

Finally, we arrived at the beach and hopped on a launcher to take us the rest of the way. It was a cute little spot with loads of starfish and very few people, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t as good as the previous day. It didn’t rain but it was pretty cloudy and it was only on the way home that the sun finally started to make an appearance.

Starfish beach - Bocas del Toro

That evening and it was another big group dinner, this time at a local Thai place. Despite having run out of green curry, it was still a delicious meal, marred only by the fact that we left our camera there at the end of the night. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to get it back, despite being the last ones in the restaurant and going back to the place first thing in the morning. Hmmm.

Anyway, despite the camera incident, it was a fun few days and a great taste of the laidback vibe we’re hoping to experience more of as we near the end of our travels. Next stop and it’s a hop across the border to Puerto Viejo accompanied by the Stef, Stef (the Swisses), Paolo (Italian) and Josh (Alaska).

Panama City – the richest capital in Central America

Back on dry land after our San Blas trip, we head straight for Panama City. We’re not planning on stopping in many of the capital cities whilst in Central America as the vast majority of them are grey and soulless, some of them downright dangerous. But Panama City is different. For a start, it’s a hell of a lot richer, something which is evident the moment our car approaches the metropolis, as we set eyes on the shiny, modern skyscrapers and expensive waterside apartment blocks. There’s been a huge amount of American investment in the city, and even Donald Trump has made his mark.

But there’s another side too, in the charming yet slightly decrepit houses and cobblestone streets of the Casco Viejo, the old town. Here, you can witness what Panama City was like long ago, before it grew into the international trade hub it is today. A wander through the streets takes you past old churches, cute plazas and several small museums. You can also get a great view of the new financial district across the water, a reminder of how much things have changed.

The Old Town

Having settled in to our hostel and freshened up after our three days at sea, we headed into town to meet the rest of the crew for a few drinks and something to eat. After a great meal at a little Italian place and several bottles of wine, we headed to the bar at Luna’s Castle for some more drinks, including a few rather strong caipirinhas. With all the best intentions of getting up and going to the canal the next morning, we headed to bed around 2am.

More of the Old Town

Unfortunately, Rich wasn’t feeling quite so hot the next day, not due to the alcohol but something he ate. So we decided to opt for a lazy day with a little late afternoon shopping for some new clothes – mine were all starting to look a bit tired and worn and we’d heard there was a bit shopping centre up by the bus station. Thankfully, after our unsuccessful bikini hunting trip in Ecuador, where everything was either extortionately expensive or hideously tacky or both, we had rather more luck and I managed to get a nearly a whole new wardrobe for a little over $50.

That evening and we hooked up with the Darien Gapster guys again for dinner. This time, we tried out a great little on the Amara Causeway, which connects four small islands to the mainland and was constructed using the earth that was dug up to build the canal. Unfortunately it was an open air setting and we hadn’t banked on rain. Although the food was good, and cheap too, we spent a large portion of the evening running for cover and trying to find somewhere to eat our food where we wouldn’t get wet. Still, we had fun.

Having failed to get to the canal that morning, we decided to head down the following day. The guys that had managed to make it had been disappointed as they hadn’t got to see any boats going through so we decided to try in the afternoon instead. We’d heard that boats start coming through from 2pm so we got there around 1.30pm, had a quick look around the museum and then bagged ourselves a good spot, ready for the incoming ships.

Miraflores Lock, Panama Canal

We were in luck. Two huge boats were lined up and ready to enter the lock. For the next hour, we watched and waited as they slowly made their way through, guided by small train-like vehicles from either side, went down the first step of water, then the second, and finally passed out the other side. I think Richard was more excited than I was but it was still an extremely impressive feat of engineering to witness.

Panama Canal cargo ships

The next day and we were off to Bocas Del Toro, on the coast. There was some confusion over whether the buses were running or not as there were reports that the road had been closed but after a wasted trip to the bus station to change our tickets we were reassured that everything was ok and off we went. Some of the guys from our San Blas trip was also headed up that way and we all piled on the bus for a long and very cold journey.